Ethiopian Cuisine: A Background
Ethiopia, once known as Abyssinia, is a place of high plateaus and low-lying plains. The northern high country is populated mainly by Christians, while the plains are home to Muslims and animists. Dietary restrictions in religions have given rise to a wide variety of both meat and vegetarian dishes.
While most Ethiopian ingredients are indigenous, certain ingredients such as red chilies, ginger, and spices have enriched its flavors. Grains like millet, sorghum, wheat and ancient teff form the basic breadstuffs of the diet. Most farming in Ethiopia is subsistence, so vegetables and animals are often grown and raised at home. The ancient practice of beekeeping produces exquisite honey. Honey is fermented to make tej, a honey wine.
Essential components of Ethiopian cooking are injera bread, berberé, a spicy red pepper paste, and niter kibbeh, a spice-infused clarified butter. Most foods have a stewy consistency. Alichas are mild stews. Wats are stews with the spicy flavor of berberé.
An essential spice in Ethiopian cooking is fenugreek. This hard seed gives a unique flavor to Ethiopian food. Desserts are not really served in Ethiopia, but iab, like a mixture of cottage cheese and yogurt, is traditionally the final course of a meal.
Before every meal in Ethiopia, there is a ritual washing of the hands. The meal is then served on a large platter that is draped with crepe-like injera bread. All guests eat from this one platter. Various dishes are portioned out onto the injera, and diners simply tear off a piece of the bread, use it to scoop up some of the various stews and pop it in their mouths. Extra injera bread may be served on the side. Honey wine, beer or telba, a flaxseed drink, are served as beverages. Another handwashing ends the meal, and strong coffee is served.